This is an informal transcript for a GDC lecture. The actual title was ‘Is That a Franchise in Your Pocket? An Animal Crossing Wild World Case Study’. Let me start by pointing out that the title was clearly not chosen by the speaker, Katsuya Eguchi, and has the stink of the GDC conference organisers’ logic on what constitutes a good title. That said, this was the only Japanese game designer’s talk I was able to make this year, and I was most grateful to have attended.
How does a game with few if any goals, throwback graphics and absolutely no evidence of ‘gosh wow’ graphical excess go on to achieve both critical and commercial success? Animal Crossing seemed to come from nowhere to challenge The Sims’ position as the only social sim in town. But where did this unique and wondrous game come from?
Katsuya Eguchi is hardly what would be considered a household name. Even game geeks are unlikely to know his name, although he has had a long and quite frankly sterling career at Nintendo, working such titles as Super Mario Bros. 3, Wave Race 64 and Yoshi’s Story. As director on Animal Crossing and Animal Crossing: Wild World, he had a unique insight as to where the franchise came from, and how it ended up on the DS.
Apparently, Animal Crossing was originally conceived as a game for the 64DD, with the idea of taking advantage of that system’s clock functionality. The original concept was built around the idea of a multiplayer game in which players would co-operate to fulfil goals. Obviously, the final game was not goal-oriented, but at the outset this element had not yet emerged.
Rather than pursue a strong central character such as Link or Mario, the idea was to have a “helpless” character who would depend upon help from animals (birds, wolves etc.) to help them solve problems. Since the 64DD was flailing, the project was moved to the N64, which in part explains the style of the graphics.
The team decided at some point that what they wanted to do was create a world that was an impetus for communication. That is, to design a space that was engaging enough that it would naturally drive people to engage with each other by some means. Since the goal of the design was communication, the game did not require an ending. However, it did need a place, a desire, topics, variation and encounters. In terms of giving the player some intrinsic motivation, the team decided that the game would be built around the desire to play every day.
The high level design goals for the project were therefore to deliver fun through two areas:
- Desire to play daily
We’ll look at each of these in turn.
Since communication was intended to be core to the experience, it was necessary to consider what would motivate people in this regard. It was assumed that if the game could provide both unique experiences, and shared experiences, that in itself would be the spur for people to talk to one another. “Admit it,” Eguchi-san says, “when something happens to you, you want to tell someone about it.”
What is necessary for the player to have a unique personal experience:
- Large degree of freedom
- Variety of choices
But Eguchi-san is quick to point out that freedom can be confusing. If there is so much one can do, how does the player learn about their options? It therefore became necessary to consider how to educate players. Eguchi-san presented this as a simple three step process:
1. Illustrate possibilities
2. Educate [I am not certain what was meant in this regard; I assume via conversations with NPCs et al.]
3. Expand choices
Although it was not stated, this mechanism values player freedom first. The player is presented with the situation first, and they can explore it at their leisure. Education only comes later. If the player has already discovered how things work, they will not need to learn anything when they are being spoken to; it will merely recap. Then, new choices can be added until the choices available become extremely diverse.
In order for the experience to be unique, the team devised the town system that begins with a randomly generated map, but is then gradually customised by the player. The number of customisations are vast, but the player encounters them only gradually, and thus escapes being overwhelmed by the magnitude of their choices. This ultimately means that each town is genuinally unique – “there is no other place like this!” Variety combines with the player’s imagination to give complete satisfaction, and satisfaction creates something that players want to share: I have to tell somebody. I want to show somebody.
This creates a motivation chain that drives the interest in the game:
Desire → Satisfaction
Stimulus ← Sharing
In terms of shared experiences, Eguchi-san notes that there are certain elements that are common to all towns in Animal Crossing; there are common elements through the working of the game clock, which provides festivals and seasonal changes, and through common places (since certain elements in the town are the same across all instances). But different players each have unique reactions to these common elements, which gives a reason to communicate. An example is stated in the case of Totokeke’s Saturday night performances, which some players seem to really enjoy talking about. Shared experiences provide fuel for lively conversations.
Motivation to Play Daily
One key design problem that needed to be solved was how to make people want to play every day, even though the game is not based around goals. Eguchi-san notes: “Players want a feeling of satisfaction, but if we give it to them, then we’re done.” This leads to the idea of intentionally deferring satisfaction in order to maintain interest [c.f. my comments last month about how complex cRPGs defer the ‘win’ state in order to create greater involvement in the process].
The idea employed in Animal Crossing is that satisfaction can come from overcoming inconvenience. For example, the shop only sells a few items, which is inconvenient, but provides a spur for the player to come back every day to get new items. Similarly, the changing of the seasons implies a certain inconvenience because certain things only apply for a limited window of opportunity.
But this would never work if the player’s activities were mandatory. But critically nothing is required. The player is quite literally free to pursue a variety of routines, a variety of hobbies, and the changes and simple joys of everyday play distract from the inconveniences. “Players do what they want, when they want, and grab themselves a little bit of happiness.”
Redesigning for a Handheld System
Working with the DS provided whole new opportunities thanks to the platform’s many special features:
1. Dual screen
2. Touch screen
5. Wireless connectivity
Eguchi-san is keen to point out that the wireless connectivity was the single most important motivation behind bringing the game to the DS.
However, the handheld system is also less powerful than its home console big sister. It was therefore necessary to look at the game composition carefully and determine what were the most important elements, and also, what would have to be cut. This was no easy decision!
The cuts were in three specific areas, and chosen in order to change the scale of the content, but leave the underlying play mechanics intact:
- Cut the size of the play area: this wasn’t too problematic, since the original towns in Animal Crossing were, in some respects, too large. The player spent some time walking from one side to the other. A smaller town could maintain all of the key elements of play, and even be a little easier for the player to navigate. [When one considers how small the original Animal Crossing towns were, relative to what is usually assumed is needed for a game world, I believe there is an important lesson to be learned.]
- Cut the size of the player’s living areas: in the GameCube version, the game supported 4 players each with 3 rooms for a total of 12 living spaces. For the DS, it was decided [quite sensibly] that cutting the other players made more sense than reducing the number of rooms. So the number of rooms was actually increase to 5, but the number of houses decreased to just one. This meant only 5 living spaces were needed instead of 12.
- Cut the number of animals per town: the GameCube version has 250 animals, or which up to 15 can be in the town at any given time. The DS version has 150 animals, or which up to 8 can be in the town at any given time. This is a reduction in scale, but not one that the player will especially notice.
Naturally, some elements were unchanged, and some new things were added. When adapting to a handheld, software goals need to be considered in conjunction with hardware functionality. It is vital to determine what is important, and to give amble consideration to player convenience.
Since the origin of all things Animal Crossing is the communication process, the wireless functionality was an extremely exciting prospect. For the GameCube version, it was only possible to have “wait and see” communications (for instance, by exchanging letters). But on the DS, there was the potential for more immediate communications (“idle chit chat”).
Nintendo’s global wi fi philosophy is built upon three core tenets:
- Worry free
- Free of charge
The tenet of ‘worry free’ dictated that a certain degree of caution was required. It was vitally important that the game provided a safe and relaxing experience. By opening up one’s town to complete strangers, the player is accepting guests into a place which the player is emotionally invested in. There needed to be a means to block “griefers” [Eguchi-san did not use this term, but it was implied] for example, guests coming to town and cutting down all the player’s trees, trampling flowers and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
The solution chosen was to use friend codes to mediate access to a player’s world. Nintendo had always made it clear that friend codes were designed for use with distant friends, and this took upon a special meaning for the DS version. It allowed distant friends to come and visit, without any risk of unwelcome guests.
Of course, for some people [i.e. extroverts] the thrill of meeting new people outweighs the fear of people ransacking their town – and so it is that some people publish their codes openly on the web, inviting all and sundry to stop by. The desire to enjoy communicating and the desire to play without worry is the same throughout the world, making Animal Crossing: Wild World a truly global play experience.
Eguchi-san concludes his talk by saying that “it was the game’s destiny to arrive on this platform.” He suggests other designers choose a platform that best suits their software’s goals, and to focus on the features of the platform that will have the greatest positive impact.
The DS version of Animal Crossing has shipped 2,480,000 copies to date – considerably more than the GameCube version – and its community continues to grow, day by day. It is a glowing testament to how focussing on new and original play goals can serve to deliver a game that reaches out to players in a wholly new and engaging manner.
My eternal thanks to the translator for an extremely confident rendering of the presentation (my Japanese is far from strong enough to translate in real time and I am in awe of anyone who can!) Arigato gozaimasu!